“The moment is now” — this was the rallying cry Juan Guaido issued to the people of Venezuela in a video he released on Tuesday. Standing alongside military supporters who defected to him from President Nicolas Maduro’s regime, Guaido called on the rest of the military to oust Maduro and install him as the president. Guaido declared himself to be the legitimate president of Venezuela in January amid an economic disaster and criticism that Maduro was elected in a sham election. Despite receiving the support of over 50 countries, including the US, Guaido has not taken the presidency over from Maduro.
It is no secret that Maduro has vastly eroded Venezuela’s democracy in many ways, including suppressing dissent, preventing opponents from running in elections and packing the federal government with supporters. Yet Guaido’s call on the military to remove Maduro brings another pressing question: can a military coup truly lead to a democratic government? Or would this just be another nail in the coffin for Venezuela’s democracy?
The situation in Venezuela is truly a crisis in every sense of the word. The country, formerly one of the richest in South America, has suffered a disastrous economic collapse. Around 90 percent of Venezuelans currently live below the poverty line, and at least three million have fled the country. Amid these conditions, Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was internationally condemned as a sham election due to repression of opposition parties and extremely low turnout. Guaido declared himself to be the legitimate president of Venezuela in January. He argued that as president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative body, the Constitution empowered him to take over the presidency because Maduro had not been elected in a fair election. Yet in his Tuesday video, Guaido’s appeal acknowledged his need for the military’s support to install him as president.
This appeal illustrates a challenging fact of Venezuela’s politics: the military ultimately decides who runs the country. This has been the case ever since the military overthrew dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958. Maduro has retained power largely due to the military’s support, and military members have many reasons to remain loyal to him. Active-duty and retired officers profit from running important ministries and state entities, including food distribution networks, the state oil company and the state arms factory. Usurping Maduro could jeopardize all of these benefits. The military has also been accused of crimes including drug trafficking and human rights violations. The opposition has offered amnesty for military members who pledge allegiance to Guaido, but many military leaders are skeptical of the sincerity of this offer.
If the ultimate goal of Guaido’s opposition is to win over the military, the line between a democratic revolution and a promissory coup begins to blur. In On Democratic Backsliding, Nancy Bermeo defines promissory coups as coups that promise to install a more democratic system but often continue the repression present in the previous regime (Bermeo 8). Even if the military does oust Maduro, they will also be the ones setting the terms of the new government. Bermeo writes that outcomes of these promissory coups vary widely — with some countries holding elections just months after the coup, and others waiting years (Bermeo 9). In some cases, such as Thailand in 2006, countries even saw more repression under their resulting regimes (Bermeo 10). It is thus unclear that a military ouster of Maduro would automatically increase democratic freedom in Venezuela.
Foreign involvement adds another complex dimension to Guaido’s bid for the presidency. The US has backed Guaido since he first declared himself to be Venezuela’s legitimate president. The US also has a notorious history of interfering in Latin American democratic processes. During the Cold War, the US often backed repressive regimes in the region out of fear that regimes sympathetic to Communism would otherwise take hold. In 2002, the US even voiced support for a failed coup in Venezuela that attempted to overthrow popular and democratically-elected president Hugo Chavez.
Given this previous interference, it is unclear if the US has Venezuela’s best interests at heart when supporting Guaido for the presidency. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, and was one of the US’s leading oil suppliers before the US imposed sanctions on Maduro’s government. The US has said it would begin to remove sanctions if Guaido was installed as president. For the US, backing Guaido is therefore not just a matter of promoting democracy globally, but of also having a friendly leader in charge of much-needed oil resources.
Despite the unease one may feel at the roles of both the military and foreign powers in deciding who will lead Venezuela, a military coup that installs Guaido may be the only hope the country has of restoring democracy. And as the Maduro regime proves increasingly inept at handling Venezuela’s various humanitarian crises, it may not be able to hold on to power much longer. However, it remains to be seen if such a coup would ultimately bring about democracy or be just another empty promise.
*Photo: “Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks at a rally.”, Creative Commons Zero license.